Clayton, N.C. — Johnston County authorities were investigating a fire Saturday that gutted a home near Clayton and displaced a gay couple who had been victims of harassment for more than a year.
The couple, who did not want to be identified out of fear for their safety, is staying in a motel after fire ripped through their house in the Winston Pointe subdivision, off Guy Road, around 1:30 a.m. Friday.
They were out of town when the fire was set. A neighbor reported it.
The fire is being investigated as an arson, said Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell, but he said it does not appear to be related to a string of suspicious fires in the area.
A neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of backlash against her, said there have been at least three separate incidents of anti-gay harassment at the home. A note with derogatory language was left in the mailbox, an anti-gay slur was written on the house with marker, and the tires of a car parked in the garage were slashed, the neighbor said.
"For this to happen here... it's heartbreaking," she said. "I can't even put into words how horrible it is for them."
Bizzell confirmed that the sheriff's office was aware of two of those incidents, but would not say which two. He would not confirm whether they are related to the arson investigation.
"I felt sick to my stomach. I felt so sorry for the two gentlemen. They lost everything," the couple's friend and neighbor said. "We do believe that this is a hate crime."
Other neighbors in the subdivision were surprised by the fire.
"(I) just didn't know what to expect," said neighbor Kivet Roseboro. "(I) saw a lot of water and a lot of smoke."
Roseboro awoke to authorities at his door, asking if he had seen anything suspicious.
"All the neighbors are scared," Roseboro said. "I'm not sure who would want to do this."
The Red Cross is supplying the victims with food, clothes and contacts for insurance, the organization said.
Bizzell said there are no suspects at this time. No other information was released.